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Program Notes - Symphonic Dances

Le Tombeau de Couperin
Maurice Ravel

b. Ciboure, France / March 7, 1875;
d. Paris, France / December 28, 1937

In this delectable suite, Ravel paid tribute to the graceful music of the French Baroque. Conceived as a piece for piano, he began work on it in 1914, only to be interrupted by the First World War. He completed it in 1917. It contains a further, contemporary element of homage: each movement bears a dedication to a friend who died in combat. When Ravel transcribed the six-movement suite for orchestra in 1919, he deleted two sections and re-arranged the sequence of the remaining movements.

The Prélude (dedicated to the memory of Lt. Jacques Charlot) offers a swift, sparkling introduction. The Forlane (dedicated to Lt. Gabriel Deluc) is the oldest dance form in the suite. This lilting step, dating back to the Italian Renaissance, is said to have been a favorite of Venetian gondoliers. The church held the opposite view, banning it as indecent. In Ravel’s day, it served as a substitute for the tango, which had also been condemned as obscene by the church. This example is a deft modernist re-interpretation, wistful and bittersweet.

These emotions intensify in the Menuet, which is dedicated to Jean Dreyfus, son of the friend at whose home Ravel completed the suite. In the central section of this movement, one of the most exquisitely melancholy pages in his entire output, Ravel momentarily opened a crack in the curtain behind which he carefully concealed his emotions, and permits a shaft of poignant inner light to shine forth. The rambunctious concluding Rigaudon (dedicated to Pierre and Pascal Gaudin) derives from a rustic dance originating in the French region of Provence. A pastoral middle section, complete with drone bass, provides gentle contrast to the high-spirited outer panels.

Havanaise, Op. 83
Camille Saint-Saëns

b. Paris, France / October 9, 1835;
d. Algiers, Algeria / December 16, 1921

Saint Saëns wrote this gorgeous piece in 1887 and dedicated it to violinist Diaz Albertini. This was a time when Latin music of various strains was very much in favor with French composers. According to biographer James Harding, the inspiration for Saint Saëns’ Havanaise came from “a memory of the crackling of a wood fire that somehow took musical shape in his brain.” It has the lilting, sultry character of the habanera, a tango-like African dance whose popularity spread first to Cuba, then to Spain.

Maurice Ravel

In 1922, Ravel heard a recital by Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi. After the concert, she played gypsy melodies at his request. Intrigued, he decided to pay homage both to her and her music in this fiery composition, Tzigane (the French word for a female gypsy). She gave the premiere of the original, violin-and-piano version in London during April 1924. Ravel created the even more colorful arrangement with orchestral accompaniment over the following summer. It opens with a long, elaborate unaccompanied violin solo. The orchestra then enters quietly, ushering in a dashing, kaleidoscopic segment overflowing with virtuoso fireworks.

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Sergei Rachmaninoff

b. Oneg, Russia / March 20, 1873;
d. Beverly Hills, Calif. / March 28, 1943

Rachmaninoff began work on this piece, his final composition, in the summer of 1940. The premiere, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, took place on January 3, 1941, before the musicians had sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the music. The largely negative reception crushed Rachmaninoff. For decades, the Symphonic Dances remained the stepchild of his major works for orchestra. The last 25 years have witnessed a strong growth in appreciation of this moody, many-layered and spectacularly orchestrated work, as testified by numerous recordings and live performances. Rhythm plays a powerful role in it, but in terms of scale, quality of themes and ingenuity of development, it is much more a symphonic work than a balletic one.

It continued Rachmaninoff’s obsession with the Dies irae (Day of Wrath), a somber melody drawn from the medieval plainchant Mass for the Dead. He had previously quoted it in several works. Other composers, Hector Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) and Franz Liszt (Totentanz) among them, have shared this fascination.

The Dies irae appears several times in veiled form in the first Symphonic Dance. This movement begins quietly, expectantly, before introducing its bold, thrusting main subject. The orchestra includes a piano, here functioning to fascinating effect as a member of the percussion section. The long, floating melody of the central panel, unexpectedly voiced in the plaintive tones of the alto saxophone, is one of Rachmaninoff’s loveliest lyrical creations. Sparely accompanied at first by woodwinds, it blossoms forth eloquently when he transfers it to the strings.

Near the end, a gorgeous melody appears unheralded in the strings, delicately spangled in bell-like fashion with glockenspiel, harp and piano. This is a consoling transfiguration of the “motto” subject that pervades his First Symphony. That piece’s catastrophic premiere in 1897 had traumatized him to the point where he was unable to compose for three years. The motto’s appearance here, in far gentler guise than in the symphony, may represent an older, wiser composer – who may have sensed that his death was less than two years ahead – reconciling with this troubled child of his creative youth. Until the symphony’s second performance – in 1945, two years after his death – few save he would have either recognized it or grasped the significance of its appearance here.

Within the framework of a symphonic waltz, the second dance presents a haunted vision of the ballroom. It lies closer in spirit to Ravel’s La valse or the Valse triste of Sibelius than the joyous dance-poems of the Strauss family. Introduced by eerie, muted fanfares on trumpets and horns, whirling woodwind arabesques and a spectral violin solo (death tuning his fiddle, as in Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony), it turns on a troubled waltz tune first stated by English horn. The spirit of the dance never maintains itself for long. The music regularly slows almost to a halt, as if in nervous anticipation of impending catastrophe, or shadowed by memories of past horrors. A mood of nostalgic reverie attempts to assert itself mid-way through, only to be shattered by the return of the opening fanfares. They summon the ghostly dancers back to fulfill their destiny. The tempo accelerates through a passage of mounting hysteria, only to peak quickly, then end with equal abruptness.

The final movement is a grand witches’ sabbath that would do Berlioz or Mussorgsky proud. Pervaded from the opening bars by the Dies irae, it seethes with manic, diabolical energy. A lengthy, reflective and lamenting middle section provides contrast. With the return of the opening material, a furious conflict breaks out between the Dies irae and a traditional Russian religious chant, Blessed is the Lord. The chant finally gains the upper hand, and an Alleluia theme drawn from Rachmaninoff’s choral work Vespers rings out triumphantly. Thus Rachmaninoff concluded his career as a composer – and made his final musical/ philosophical statement – with a representation of the victory of his deeply held religious faith over the powers of darkness and death. At the end of the manuscript score, he inscribed, “I thank Thee, Lord.”

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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